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Remembering the inspiration, intelligence, energy and joy of cultural critic Maurice Berger | COMMENTARY

Maurice Berger, research professor and chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), who died at age 63 from complications related to COVID-19 this week. He is pictured here in October 1999 as curator of "Adrian Piper A Retrospective," a new show at the UMBC Fine Arts Gallery.
Maurice Berger, research professor and chief curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), who died at age 63 from complications related to COVID-19 this week. He is pictured here in October 1999 as curator of "Adrian Piper A Retrospective," a new show at the UMBC Fine Arts Gallery.(BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR)

It was a rainy September afternoon, and I was cold, wet and cranky when I finally found my way to the gallery where an exhibition on the relationship between modern art and the first three decades of American television was being mounted. The doors to gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) were locked, and no one was responding to me banging on them. My mood got even darker as I stopped banging and started thinking about walking back across the campus in the rain and returning to the office empty-handed for my Sunday column.

But just as I was turning away, the doors suddenly opened and there was Maurice Berger, curator of the exhibit. All the crankiness vanished in a flash. The next two hours with him and his partially-mounted exhibit were among the most intellectually exciting and joyful I have experienced in all my years on campuses and the media beat.

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Berger, a research professor and chief curator at UMBC, had that kind of effect on some students, and that afternoon, I was happily one of them.

“I found that talking to Berger and walking through ‘Revolution of the Eye: Modern Art and the Birth of American Television’ was like walking on clouds,” I wrote of the show and my interview with its curator in 2016, (though Berger had been influencing me for two decades at that point). “I left the exhibition on an intellectual and emotional high.”

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I have been thinking a lot about Berger this week since hearing of his death at age 63 from complications related to COVID-19. In fact, I can’t get him out of my mind. (Quoting Berger’s husband, Marvin Heiferman, the New York Times said the official cause of death was heart failure, but that Berger had been exhibiting severe symptoms of the virus for five days without being tested for it before or after death.)

We were not great friends, though we did exchange messages from time to time on matters of media, identity and politics. But he was one of the greatest cultural critics of our generation. He was among the first to understand, appreciate and fear television as a great culture machine that could change the way we think and see ― for better or worse. Prior to the work of scholars like him, TV was mainly thought of as an entertainment box squatting there in the living room for some easy escapism with a bottle of beer or glass of wine at the end of a long day: the boob tube.

Almost everyone who writes about TV today has some notion of its content as culture, but before scholars like Berger, coverage of television appeared on pages labeled amusements in even the best newspapers. And almost no one except a few prescient pioneering popular culture professors considered television anywhere near worthy of being taught in the classroom. Perish the thought when we had all those dead white male authors from the English Department canon to worship.

Berger wasn’t just a great scholar, he was a great writer, too. No author was more important to my course of Ph.D study at the University of Maryland, College Park, than Berger with his landmark essay, “The Mouse That Never Roars: Jewish Masculinity on American Television." I was blown away by Berger’s critique of how Jewish men on TV were consistently depicted in more effeminate terms in opposition to the rugged, physical, masculine mainstream ideal of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s embodied in film stars like John Wayne. And those images were often created by Jewish writers themselves. What meaning did gentile viewers make of that? His work convinced me I needed a lot more schooling if I wanted to do real media and cultural criticism instead of just reviewing the latest sitcom or drama that the networks churned out.

The extent of Berger’s influence on me can be seen in the titles of my dissertation in 2000 and a book based on it in 2003: “The Jews of Prime Time,” an examination of Jewish identity in prime time network television from its earliest days in 1949 with “The Goldbergs” sitcom, to “Seinfeld” in 1999. The systematic methods of analysis for images of media identity that Berger employed and helped develop have since been applied to race, gender, social class and other markers of identity in media by a multitude of cultural studies’ critics and scholars.

That body of work has made us much wiser as a society about how media shape and define our very notions of ourselves and what we should desire or despise. And once we understand how that process affects us, we can use media for our own good rather than being used by it for the commercial interests of its corporate owners. That’s revolutionary stuff.

As saddened as I am by Berger’s death, I am glad to see all the tributes and appreciations of him, especially the several I saw in The Sun. His legacy is a rich one that extends well beyond the area of my connection to him. He was a celebrated art historian and a fierce foe of racism in any form of artistic representation. The best of the pieces on him this week help readers see and understand him not just for his vast intellectual accomplishments, but also as a generous, socially-conscious and inspirational human being who could brighten any space he entered as he did that dreary afternoon at UMBC with me.

The key here is seeing Berger as a human being who up until a few days ago was walking this earth with us. It is so easy with all the staggering numbers and graphics being thrown around on TV and myriad digital sites, to lose track of the human beings behind those COVID-19 statistics. And we know the numbers are going to get much bigger and far more overwhelming in coming weeks.

With makeshift morgues already being set up in Manhattan to handle the bodies, maybe this is impossible, but I believe we in the media have a moral obligation to try to humanize each and every death related in any way to COVID-19, as we have with Berger’s. Give the names and numbers shown on the screens faces and voices in our reports. Tell the stories of their lives as eloquently as we can. In doing that, we will make it much harder for those who want to sacrifice lives in the name of jump starting the economy to win that dark debate triggered by President Trump.

I know one of the reasons I cannot get thoughts of Berger out of my mind is because I heard of his death about the same time as I heard Trump telling an interviewer on Fox News how he wanted to get the economy back up and running by Easter. The president spun a scenario of churches being packed on Easter ― a vision of social distancing abandoned that was decried by virtually every scientist and medical doctor involved in research or frontline care.

Maybe we can save some lives by writing as powerfully as we can about the humanity of those already lost. Maybe we can even help save this country from the worst impulses of the Trump administration and its allies who are arguing that the economy should come first. Those of us with a social conscience can do nothing less. I am pretty sure Maurice Berger would have been all in on the side of using our words to try to save lives.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.

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